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Twitter sets its sights on 2 billion users

Twitter VP of products Satya Patel says that with 140 million users today, the company has to make it simpler for users to get close to what's most meaningful to them, in order to attract billions of adherents.

"Everything we are doing is oriented around getting to 2 billion users."

You might think that statement was from Mark Zuckerberg, as Facebook approaches 1 billion active users on its social network and focuses on the next billion. But it was Satya Patel, Twitter's vice president of products, outlining the goal his company has set for itself.

With an estimated 140 million users today, producing 340 million tweets a day, 2 billion people using Twitter at least once a month isn't a near-term goal. Based on its current growth rate, which is accelerating as hashtags and @ signs become more embedded in everyday life, Twitter will likely reach 200 million active users in August.

Patel wouldn't tell me when he expected Twitter to reach 2 billion users, which today would include nearly everyone on the Internet around the world. But he knows what success would look like. "Success is if everybody in the world wakes up and checks Twitter," he said.

"Get big as fast as you can" is the mantra of Silicon Valley -- as well as any other valleys where technical innovation and opportunism meets venture capitalism. It may not be the ultimate road to immediate profit, but it's a well worn road for those who want a chance to own a significant chunk of digital real estate. Google's done as much in search, Facebook in the social web, Apple in mobile devices, Amazon in e-commerce, and Microsoft on the desktop.

Twitter handles and hashtags are becoming part of professional sports uniforms (Credit: NBA)

The path to becoming more mainstream and attracting 2 billion tweeters is making the product more approachable to mere mortals, Patel said.

"There is incredible awareness of Twitter, but the gap between awareness and ability to extract value is too great. We have to make it simpler for users to get close to what is most meaningful to them and easier to discover information."

Twitter has focused on its Discovery feature as a way to attract users and help them become more fluent in the service. Discovery analyzes signals, such as who users follow as well as their interests and engagement on Twitter, to "personalize the experience and display stories without any user intervention," Patel said.

Twitter's Discovery feature surfaces content that it determines a user might have an interest in viewing, including from sources that a user doesn't follow. Like many personalization features and applications, Twitter Discovery is hit and miss in separating the noise from the signals.

He acknowledged the challenge of keeping Twitter simple as the volume of feature requests escalates. As Twitter CEO Dick Costolo phrased Twitter's goal, "We are going to offer simplicity in a world of complexity."

"We add via subtraction and look at how to reduce the number of steps to get value from the product. Consistency across devices is also important -- you shouldn't have to relearn the product for each device," Patel said.

Patel, who came to Twitter from Google, where he led the development of Google Ad Manager, also said that advertising has fit into the Twitter simplicity mold. Twitter's main advertising vehicle, promoted tweets, "are just content.... and in some cases people  want to pay so a broader audience can see them. It has to be built off of the organic nature of the platform," he said.

In our conversation, Patel stressed that Twitter deals with a different use case than a social network like Facebook. "It's a real-time public conversation, bringing everybody in the world closer to the people and topics they care about. It requires the conversation and information to be public. I think we do the best job in the world in addressing this single-use case," he said.

But not everything on Twitter is public. The direct messaging feature allows Twitter users to have private conversations. Patel's view is that direct messaging is "useful to a subset of users, but not core to the use case that will be most important to 2 billion people who use Twitter every day." Nor does Twitter have any current plan in the works to offer real-time group chat.

Facebook is on the cusp of a billion users eight years after it launched. Six years into its existence, Twitter has around 140 million. Two billion is a long way off, but there isn't much in the way, outside of being locked out of China, to prevent reaching that goal, eventually.